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Milton committee debates future of police department

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Take-home vehicles, K9 program draw support

Milton's police committee has two recommendations for Town Council, and neither one involves disbanding the police department.

The committee unanimously voted Dec. 22 to recommend to council to uphold the police department's take-home vehicle policy and maintain its K9 program, two topics that have been discussed by the committee for months.

Committee members previously debated the cost-effectiveness of both programs, and members concluded that a $2,000 yearly budget for one K9 officer - which handler Lt. Derrick Harvey has invested his own money and used grants to purchase and maintain - is worth the cost. Capt. John Cornwell clarified that Harvey is unable to dedicate the recommended 20 hours of training each month because the department is understaffed, and that excess overtime due to hours spent training is not an issue.

Committee members also concluded that the department's take-home vehicle policy can be an incentive for new officers and is more cost-effective than other methods, like hot-seating, in which a police vehicle runs nonstop and is traded at shift changes. Cornwell said Milton's fleet is relatively old, that the vehicles will be better maintained and last longer if officers are permitted to take them home, and that response times are faster when the vehicles are more easily accessible.

But the meeting room at the Milton library was packed with residents Dec. 22 for a different issue: discussion of the committee's recent controversial suggestion to recommend disbanding the town's police force.

Committee Chairperson Lynn Ekelund apologized for the committee's mistake during its Nov. 24 meeting, when a recommendation that Milton Town Council consider disbanding the department was discussed and voted on, even though the matter had not been noticed on the meeting's published agenda.

"Our vote to recommend to council that it consider dissolving the Milton Police Department falls well within the ad hoc committee's charge," Ekelund said, followed by audible disapproval from the audience. "The motion was not made frivolously."

Ekelund added that she immediately contacted committee members and Mayor Marion Jones when she realized the matter had not been properly noticed for the Nov. 24 meeting and should not have been discussed.

"As chair of the committee, I take full responsibility for this violation, and I apologize to the citizens of Milton," she said to the public Dec. 22.

Citizens support police

Former Milton Mayor Cliff Newlands was the first resident to speak at the meeting, starting off with a recommendation to disband the committee instead of the department.

"First of all, I think you're all nuts," he said. "I think this group should be disbanded." Newlands said even with an $800,000 budget, it would cost each household in Milton about $525 per year to fund the police department, which he argued to be a reasonable amount.

The Milton Police Department would be at full staff with nine officers; Milton's fiscal year 2015 budget accounts for eight officers. Milton currently has four active officers, a chief on terminal leave and two recruits in training.

Ekelund said she has been in support of exploring the option of eliminating the department for years, citing the potential savings of turning local police duties over to the Delaware State Police. She said the initial recommendation was intended to open a formal discussion among town representatives.

"We are concerned as an ad hoc committee that we are not receiving all the information we need from the police department to make informed recommendations to council," she said.

Resident Mary Hudson, a former law enforcement officer, was the only resident who vocally supported Ekelund's position. Hudson said Milton isn't capable of handling some policing duties - like holding detainees or functioning as a dispatch center – and that centralizing state police with a substation in Milton would be more cost-effective.

"As times change, as population increases ... the economics of a small town are overridden," she said. "I would like to see state police patrol the area."

Hudson was one of about a dozen residents who spoke during a public comment portion of the meeting, and the only person who supported exploring the idea of disbanding the police force.

The public outpouring of support for Milton's police force led committee members to discuss researching ways to increase salaries for new officers, an issue that the committee has previously noted as a deterrent to building a strong, fully-staffed force in town.

"If we need to spend more money, we're going to need to increase our taxes," Ekelund said, citing the town's recent 11 percent tax increase and noting that 47 percent of Milton's general fund operating budget pays for the police force. But, she said, there's a serious discrepancy between what Milton pays its officers and what nearby towns pay. She also said she's concerned that Milton currently only has four active officers.

Salaries at issue

Committee member Roger Thomson agreed that low salaries are a challenge in Milton.

"We have to raise salaries in order to have a fighting chance," he said.

Milton officers start out at $30,000 a year, advancing to $34,000 once training is completed. Nearby jurisdictions, such as Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Georgetown, have starting salaries ranging from $41,000 to nearly $47,000 a year.

"We're in this continuous training cycle," Ekelund said. She said officers start their careers in Mil ton until they find higher-paying jobs with other departments. Ekelund said she still wants to explore the costs associated with turning policing duties over to the state. "We have a number of things we have to consider," she said. The committee's recommendation to keep the police department's take-home vehicle policy and K9 program will come before town council at 6:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 5. The committee set its next meeting for Jan. 26.

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Original Publication Date: January 2, 2015

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